Writer/director Michael Hoffman’s film adaptation of Jay Parini's novel doesn't effectively rally the strength of its accomplished actors. The inimitable Christopher Plummer plays novelist Leo Tolstoy, who is in the midst of a bitter dispute with his wife of 48 years, Sofya (Helen Mirren), over his plans to bequeath his vast wealth and utopian Yasnaya Polyana estate to a socialist idealist named Chertov (Paul Giamatti).
The year is 1910, and, in the interest of keeping idolaters close by, Tolstoy takes on avid follower Valentin (James McAvoy) as a new personal secretary.
Disinterested in intruding on family squabbles as they pertain to his secretary position, Valentin expends his energies with a sexually liberated Tolstoyan named Masha (Kerry Condon). Her crash course in non-romantic love blinds Valentin — and the audience — from the full impact of Sofya's plight, which needed much more narrative attention than the filmmakers afford.
Here is a story murdered by a subplot. Whenever the action abandons Tolstoy and Sofya, it’s as if the film regresses into a teen love story. But whenever Plummer and Mirren (both were recently nominated for Academy Awards) share the screen, the film pops and twinkles with drama. By the time Tolstoy arrives at the Astapovo train station, where he took his last breath, the story's better title would have been Train in Vain. Grade: C-plus
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